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Interview "All This Useful Chatter"
VH1, 2002-04-16
- Stacy Shapiro


Elvis Costello: All This Useful Chatter

Rocking again, he made When I Was Cruel at home.

By Stacy Shapiro

Elvis Costello does what he likes, which is why since reuniting the Attractions on 1994’s Brutal Youth he’s neglected his pop muse to experiment with '60s pop professional Burt Bacharach and contempo opera singer Anne-Sofie von Otter. For

those who prefer his harder, catchier stuff, however, there’s cause for celebration. The new When I Was Cruel (due in stores on April 23) goes back to the rock 'n' roll with distorted tremelo guitars, a springy rhythm bed and lots of wit. Typically, Costello's also taking on topics like the entertainment industry, radio babble and weasels of all stripes. The ever loquacious singer sat down with VH1 to discuss writing songs for Destiny’s Child, getting help from ABBA, playing with samples and how he joined The Simpsons.

VH1: This is something of a return to pop after projects like last year’s For the Stars, your collaboration with Anne-Sofie von Otter. What prompted it?

Elvis Costello: I’ve been doing a lot of different things: collaborating with Burt Bacharach; writing an orchestral score for the Aterballetto Dance Company. The discipline required for those meant learning something other than merely picking up the guitar and switching on drum machines. I had to try and strike a balance between all the elements of songwriting. But I just started writing songs and this is how they came out.

VH1: So with all that experience behind you, what inspired When I Was Cruel?

Costello: I didn’t want to make something that I had already made before. Reforming the Attractions wasn’t an option because of the personality thing, so I set out to make the record on my own. I messed around with gadgets I could program with these crazy beats no drummer would ever play, and it got me moving a different way with the electric guitar. Predominately this is a rhythm record, which you can hear on songs like “Tart” and “My Blue Window.” We cut the record as a trio in Dublin in six days with just guitar, bass, and drums. Then I kidnapped Steve Nieve of the Attractions from this tour with a French actress called Vanessa Paradis - he leads a glamorous life! - and brought him to Dublin to add his keyboard. Then I worked on singing, we mixed it, and it was done.

VH1: It sounds like there’s a strong R&B influence on the album.

Costello: When I Was Cruel certainly has more bass on it than any other record of mine. I even wrote “Spooky Girlfriend” with Destiny’s Child in mind. Don’t you think they’d sound good singing that? The whole bottom end of the album is more like an R&B or reggae record than most rock records today. Rock records are very square. The beat doesn’t swing. That’s why I never use the word “rock.” I like the expression “rock ‘n’ roll” because rock ‘n’ roll music had swing in it.

VH1: Where did the title When I Was Cruel come from?

Costello: I first wrote a song called “When I Was Cruel” in ‘99, but wasn’t satisfied with it. Then I got to the bottom of that expression and wrote, “When I Was Cruel No. 2.” There were times when the songs I wrote had a lot of disdain for people in power. Now that I’m older, I’ve been in the company of some of these people, and realize what seedy little individuals they are. They have bad toupees, bad ties and unfortunate spouses. There’s also more humor in the way things are expressed on this album than on past records. I’m still concerned that some of the people in the world are ruthless brutes, but how I react is slightly different.

VH1: What’s the story behind the single “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)”?

Costello: A friend of mine was writing a television show, and we imagined a comic fantasy where these Russian girls bankrupted America and destroyed the entertainment industry by spending record company money. The songs that I was imagining for this Russian group were songs of this nature. We came close to producing a pilot, but then the TV executives got cold feet and said, “We want a program like Friends.” So I said, “I’m gonna record these songs myself, because I’m in the mood to write rock ‘n’ roll songs again.” Obviously it would be more picturesque to have a group of Russian models playing the song. Maybe if we make a video, that’s what it will be. Or a cartoon. We should just cut through the idea of a TV show and release it as a perfume. It will remind you of the scent of the idea!

VH1: Does “Radio Silence” have any connection with “Radio Radio?"

Costello: Radio creeps into your life one way or another. You’ll be in a taxi and the cab driver will be listening to some belligerent person ranting about something they know nothing about, just because somebody told them that they have the right to free speech. Unfortunately there’s also this awful thing called free listening. You are obliged to hear this because there is no escape. It’s a fantasy about a man who locks himself in a top radio studio to make some big statement to the world, but realizes after he’s done that he’s become the same kind of idiot that he’s so angry about. I don’t know if it necessarily has anything directly to do with “Radio Radio,” but it takes place in the radio world.

VH1: In your sleeve notes, you thank ABBA’s Benny Andersson for letting you quote the words of “Dancing Queen” on the title track. Where did that idea come from?

Costello: “When I Was Cruel No. 2” is about a big party, and obviously “Dancing Queen” is the song playing at it. I had the idea of referring to that in the lyrics, but you can’t just quote a line from a song. You have to ask permission. Benny Andersson played accordion on For the Stars, and we also recorded his song, “Like An Angel Passing Through the Room.” So ABBA were kind enough to let me use that quote.

VH1: Will you have to pay royalties on that?

Costello: The publishing company probably makes some sort of agreement, but I don’t mind paying. The foundation of “When I Was Cruel,” is an Italian pop record from the ‘60s by this fantastic singer called Mina. We’re just using the first two bars, but we’re paying a royalty to the writers of that original song. It’s still their two chords, you know? I haven’t made a sample so fundamental to the construction of the track before, but the way my melody fitted was unbeatable. I couldn’t have done it better if I recorded a backing track with the same kind of mood. So why mess with it if it works?

VH1: You’re very open to trying new things.

Costello: There’s no sense in doing it just because it’s voguish. I’ve used sampling in very subtle ways in the past, but this is a more overt use of it. Having a sampler at home is better than having musicians hang around the house all the time. They get bored waiting for me to finish the songs. Early on, I was writing very quickly and I had the Attractions around all the time. I would finish some songs and we would immediately rehearse them before I had too solid an idea about the rhythm. The rhythms we were playing then did beautifully for those records. But there would be no point doing something that worked 25 years ago and expect it to have any magic.

VH1: Who are you listening to now?

Costello: Bob Dylan’s last record was one of his best ever, and that’s a terrific thing to say about somebody who has made as many albums as he has. I haven’t stopped listening to Lucinda Williams’ record since it came out last year. I’m also listening to music from other parts of the world. For some reason I’m particularly attracted to the way Ethiopians sing and arrange. All the rhythms are really off center from what we’re familiar with. It’s like finding a big stack of great funk records. Then there’s some older records, like Howlin’ Wolf and Lightning Hopkins.

VH1: I’ve read that you have a film project coming up. Is that true?

Costello: Neil Labute is making a film of his play The Shape of Things. We’ve talked about working together on a couple of occasions. I sent my record to him, and he really liked it. He said he wanted to try and use a number of songs throughout the film as interludes. I can’t wait to hear how that works out because the play is really great. It has a great cast, Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz.

VH1: You’re also appearing on The Simpsons. How did that come about? Are you a fan?

Costello: I am a huge fan. It’s the only truly satirical program on American television. It works on so many levels. Mike Scully, The Simpsons’ executive producer, asked me to be in a documentary he was making about the great American group NRBQ. I was like, “Absolutely. Anything that makes people discover them.” People who like them can’t understand why they’re not the most famous group ever. I went to the Simpsons lot to shoot it and met Matt Groening and a lot of the cast members. I went to a reading and sat around while they did all the voices. I suppose the idea popped in their head that maybe I could be in it too, you know? So I got a call saying, “The next time you’re in town come in and do this voice.”

VH1: You’re going to be 48 in August. Any thoughts?

Costello: No. I never minded being older than I was, and now I got my wish. Rock ‘n’ roll years are like dog years, or maybe it’s the opposite of dog years. I’ll just keep going until I don’t want to work as hard as I do or can’t physically go the distance. Right now, I pretty much love it.


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